The Remains of the Day
This week, a new story, Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1988 The Remains of the Day.
(Whiny voice: This week, a new story, Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and—ow! Sounds of struggle, a crash. Something seems to strike a microphone, and feedback ensues).
‘Kay. Everyone settle down. I want to apologize—get him! Don’t let him get away!. (indistinct yelling).
I first read Remains in 1995 when I was living in Chicago. My wife and I had seen the wonderful 1993 Merchant/Ivory film version starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and I was eager to read the original book. I purchased the 1993 Vintage International Edition—connected to the film—and rely on it to this day. Remains is one of my favorite books and films, and this is the fifth time I’ve read it.
(Distant shouting—big deal, Mr. Big Shot!)
There has been a lot of scholarly attention on and writing about Remains, and if I make use of any of these ideas, I’ll do my best to cite them.
The cover of this edition is made up of images from the film showing Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in character as Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton, the butler and housekeeper of Darlington Hall, a large estate in England during the nineteen twenties. (The film collapses the time a bit, I believe, so that its events begin more in the thirties). After the title page, there is a dedication to a real woman who was a friend of Ishiguro’s in the 1980s, Mrs. Lenore Marshall.
Remains is in broad terms about a road trip that the protagonist, Mr. Stevens, undertakes from Darlington Hall in southeast England to the southwest where he seeks Miss Kenton, who had left Darlington Hall to marry before the war and has recently written Mr. Stevens to let him know about a separation from her husband. Stevens hopes to persuade Miss Kenton to return—both for professional and personal reasons. So it is a story about a journey, both to reconnect with Ms. Kenton and to understand the past, and Stevens’ role in it.
The novel is divided into eight sections, each one’s title refers to portions of the six days of Mr. Steven’s journey, except for the first, which is—Prologue 1956 Darlington Hall.
The first line. “It seems increasingly likely that I will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.”
Mr. Stevens original employer, Lord Darlington—deceased in the book’s present—had a compromised life. An enormously wealthy man who socialized with the elite of British society, he also became involved with those who supported Adolph Hitler and the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany. He went so far as to try to broker a peace agreement between the Nazis and the British government, and is shown as being anti-semitic. He is, however, also shown as someone who rejected the Nazis and their beliefs, perhaps too late.
Stevens was his loyal butler throughout, and now struggles with the satisfaction he feels at being a good butler vs. the reputation his former employer has as a traitor. Was Stevens complicit with Lord Darlington’s misbehavior? Was Lord Darlington himself complicit with the Nazis, or was he their dupe?
It should be said that Mr. Stevens is never shown directly doing something to help the Nazis (beyond taking the German Foreign Minister’s coat). His sins are, if you will, ones of possible omission rather than commission. He remains the loyal servant of Lord Darlington despite having clear evidence of the Lord’s mis-guided conspiracy with immoral people.
The text is written in first person, presenting the thoughts of Mr. Stevens—not so much as a memoir but as a piece of rhetoric designed to persuade an imaginary reader of Mr. Stevens’ lack of guilt—not unlike Pat in Silver Linings Playbook, who is trying to convince his ex-wife of how he’s reformed himself. However, in Remains, we gradually sense that this imaginary reader is another butler whom Mr. Stevens believes is the only person who can really understand him.
Let’s define the imaginary reader as a hypothetical entity that a work is addressed to, whose attitudes, etc. may differ from an actual reader’s.
Adam Parkes in his book The Remains of the Day: A Reader’s Guide, writes that the use of this structure (a narrator addressing an imaginary reader) sets up two audiences. One is the sympathetic “you” to whom Stevens addresses his plea for understanding; the other is the reader of the novel, who is shown not only Mr. Stevens’ plea, but also the growing evidence that compromises claims of innocence.
Mr. Stevens is pre-occupied with presenting himself in a certain way which is not congruent with the truth. An example occurs when he is traveling through the countryside and stops to avoid running over a chicken. The hen’s owner rushes out to thank him, saying he was probably in a great hurry, and he replies:
“Oh, I’m not in a hurry at all,” I said with a smile. “…I’m just motoring for the pleasure of it, you see.”
Well, this statement is contradicted by large sections of the narrative that show Mr. Stevens’ eagerness to re-connect with Miss Kenton. Why does Mr. Stevens deny this? He wishes to present the world with an image of himself as a different person, sometimes a gentleman, sometimes the perfect, loyal servant to a great man, instead of the person he really is—and this person, we shall see, remains a puzzle to him.